Defining Leadership

Six Sigma Breeds Effective Leadership

Peter Peterka asked:


You browse through a handful of Six Sigma books hoping to find a definition for leadership. Chances are you’d be hard pressed to find one unifying definition. Instead, you’ll get a garden variety of definitions that will help you zero in on the true essence of leadership. Given evolving business and manufacturing trends and rapidly changing technologies, leadership has taken on a multi-faceted dimension. The same is true when speaking of leadership in Six Sigma.

Don’t be discouraged. While it is true that someone new to Six Sigma can be puzzled by the myriad of concepts, principles, charts and metric analysis, Six Sigma is, in the end, an approach based on pure common sense. And as one navigates through the discussions and literature on Six Sigma, one realizes that leadership boils down to applied common sense. As you learn more about Six Sigma principles and leadership, you’ll find that numerous writers will use the phrase, applied common sense, over and over again.

Six Sigma Terms Provide Clues to Leadership

Assuming even basic knowledge of Six Sigma, what have you observed regarding the terms that are frequently raised? This question is essential because if we closely examine the terms and phrases that are frequently used by writers to describe Six Sigma processes, they can clue us into what makes an effective leader. Establishing a link between such terms to effective leadership is a good starting point.

To cite a few: quality, speed, process flow, sustained improvement, customer satisfaction, team work, openness, factual data, cost reduction, innovation, operational efficiency, success factors – these are only a few of the recurring concepts in Six Sigma leadership. There are many others, particularly if you venture into the more technical aspects of Six Sigma, but for the moment, we are focusing on leadership.

Taking those terms therefore, how do we come up with a working and realistic definition of leadership in Six Sigma?

In its simplest form, we’ll adopt the definition given by Peter S. Pande in his book, The Six Sigma Leader (McGraw Hill, 2007). Pande says that the essence of Six Sigma leadership is balance and flexibility. The interesting point he makes is that leadership is not about absolutes nor a defined set of steps. It is a set of principles that can be applied for greater success and sustained results for an organization. He explains, “It’s based on the idea that outstanding leadership is an artful, but learnable, combination of skills that combine balance and flexibility to drive goals and performance.”

In reading Pande’s definition, our first reaction was, how can balance and flexibility be chopped into smaller segments to arrive at a clearer understanding of leadership? To say that a leader must be balanced and flexible is a rather sweeping broad statement.

Let’s see if we can take these two terms and tie them up with the terms we mentioned earlier. This is what we propose: a Six Sigma leader knows how to use factual data about the company’s mission and objectives, its employees and their functions and uses this data to come up with the critical success factors for the organization so that the company delights its customers with low costs. So leadership in Six Sigma presupposes that these four essential ingredients constitute the guiding principles for improving: factual data, critical success factors, customers and low costs.

A Six Sigma leader is also someone who can balance the high quality low cost ratio for the company to continually improve by taking members of his team to buy in to his brand of leadership. When there’s a buy-in on the part of ALL members in a team, the chances for success are higher and the risks for poor operational results are greatly diminished.

Quantum Leaders

We’ll now go into a higher realm of leadership in Six Sigma. This time, we’ll refer to what David H. Treichler and Ronald D. Carmicheal (The Six Sigma Path to Leadership, American Society for Quality, 2004) call the Quantum Leader.

Six Sigma is a model for leadership training where managers and executives are trained to be results-oriented. Treichler and Carmichael ask, “but how many leaders actually achieve quantum results?” Quantum results, they say, are those results that take an organization to higher levels of performance.

If we compare Treichler’s definition of leadership to that of Pande’s, it isn’t that all different, although Treichler goes one step further. He says quantum leaders are capable of making dispassionate decisions based on data that has been systematically gathered and analyzed, ensuring that the political realities of an organization and fear factor are managed and controlled effectively.

Treichler and Carmichael says that management must tell employees that it does not shoot messengers and that a company’s leaders must not only provide lip service to Six Sigma practices but actually provide the resources, training and opportunities so that employees are empowered to do their jobs and take responsibility – not out of personal gains, but to contribute to business gains.

As Treichler so aptly put it, “leadership cannot get it at the conceptual or intellectual level. That is mere lip service to Six Sigma. Instead, leadership must live Six Sigma, lead by Six Sigma, and infuse Six Sigma into every business decision.”

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